As incumbent, US Rep. Jesus ‘Chuy’ García faces first-ever Democratic primary challenge from Chicago Alderman Raymond Lopez

CHICAGO — Created amid controversy more than 30 years ago to help Illinois elect a Latino representative to Congress, Illinois’ 4th Congressional District was once best-known for being drawn in the shape of earmuffs in order to encompass several Hispanic Chicago neighborhoods and some suburbs.

Another truth has emerged during that time. Incumbency has translated into power. Ever since it was redrawn for the 1992 elections, the congressional district has had only two representatives in Congress — Luis Gutierrez and Jesus “Chuy” García, who was all-but-anointed Gutierrez’s successor.

But for the first time since García took office in 2019, the progressive Chicago Democrat is facing a challenge in the party’s primary. And that opposition is coming from three-term Chicago Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th.

The contest not only underscores political differences as Lopez is more conservative than García and the attention-grabbing alderman nicknamed “Showpez” has appeared frequently on Fox News criticizing Chicago’s more liberal policies and mayors. It’s also a contrast in personalities as the 45-year-old Lopez’s sometimes-chaotic energy infuses his upstart campaign against the more staid García, 67, who in making a bid for a fourth term in Congress has kept a tight campaign schedule as he shuttles between home and his duties in Washington, D.C.

The earmuff-shaped district is no more, having been reworked following the 2020 census to include many new suburbs. The 4th Congressional District now stretches from Chicago’s Southwest Side into Cicero and out west as far as Oak Brook and Hinsdale and then north to Melrose Park and Northlake.

That change is key, Lopez said, in why he thinks he can defeat García on March 19. Lopez said extending the district deeper into the suburbs, including parts of more-conservative DuPage County, provides room for him to make a case that he’s a more moderate alternative.

“You’ve never had an opponent in this district, and (García) didn’t really campaign to meet his new constituents,” Lopez said. “In the first year-and-a-half of his term he’s nowhere to be found. And that’s something that even community groups have told him, because now he’s trying to reach out and do all this stuff now, at the eleventh hour.”

García, of course, disputes Lopez’s assertions as he says voters will recognize his 40-year tenure in Chicago and Illinois politics and the reputation he’s built over that time.

“While I don’t take any opponent for granted, I am a trusted leader,” García said. “I have built solid relationships with mayors across all of the suburban communities. Even some of the Republican mayors want to see me reelected because I’ve delivered.”

Before Congress, García was alderman of Chicago’s 22nd Ward and later was the first Mexican American in the Illinois Senate. He also founded the Little Village Community Development Corporation as a community organizer and was elected to the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 2010. Most notably, Garcia ran twice for Chicago mayor but lost both times. In 2015, he forced then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff and last year he came in fourth in a mayoral bid many viewed as lacking energy.

Despite the setbacks in his efforts to become mayor, García has been popular in his heavily Democratic congressional district. He won a third term in November 2022 with about 68% of the vote over Republican James Falakos and a candidate from the Working Class Party.

That popularity is going to make Lopez’s efforts to upend García difficult, as is Lopez’s lack of campaign cash. Federal campaign finance records show García spent $406,000 on the campaign through the end of February and still had about $106,000 on hand. Lopez had spent only $38,000 on the campaign during the same time period and had about $34,000 left in his campaign bank account.

García also has the backing of local labor unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 and the Chicago Federation of Labor, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the Congressional Progressive PAC. Lopez has the support of local chapters of the Chicago Fire Fighters Union, the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police and the International Union of Elevator Constructors, among others.

But Lopez says he isn’t deterred and thinks his energy in the race could help his cause.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the alderman darted around three of his Labrador retriever mixes lounging in his small campaign office on West 51st Street near Gage Park as his husband and paid campaign manager, Hugo, searched for a campaign shirt for him to put on before finding a neighborhood to canvas nearby.

As Lopez campaigned, several drivers pulled their cars over to talk to the alderman while he knocked on doors in the blue-collar Garfield Ridge area near where he grew up. Many residents Lopez spoke to brought up the influx of Central and South American asylum-seekers to cities like Chicago and said members of Congress have to address the issue head-on.

Michael Terrazo, a 38-year-old construction worker who has lived in Garfield Ridge for 11 years, told Lopez that restricting the resources provided to recent immigrants was one of his top priorities. He also told Lopez he supported lowering taxes and maintaining moderate gun control.

“I would never vote for an extreme Democrat,” Terrazo said. “We’ve got a lot of homeless veterans. We’ve got a bunch of immigrants that came before and never looked for handouts.”

Still, Terrazo said he likes García and has voted for him in the past. While not committing to changing his vote this time around, Terrazo said he plans to do more research on both candidates before casting his ballot.

Both Lopez and García said they’d like to prioritize federal resources for the asylum-seekers who have lived in Illinois longer than those who have recently been shipped to Chicago on buses from Texas or otherwise transported from border states. The issue has become one the most serious in Chicago since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began busing migrants in Texas to Chicago and other cities to the north.

“It’s only fair for people that have been here and have been working, have been paying taxes, have been abiding by the laws,” García said. He added that while Lopez has expressed support for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program while campaigning, some of Lopez’s comments on his various interviews on Fox News signal support for “reckless and dangerous actions” that would “seek to do away with protections for long-term immigrants.”

The two also have pitched themselves as the commonsense choice to represent the district.

García said he supports federal legislation to strengthen gun control to prevent mass shootings as well as robberies and carjackings. He also stressed the importance of keeping Illinois an oasis for those seeking reproductive health services and gender-affirming care and creating jobs while lowering the costs of prescription medication and food.

“I’ve lived in this neighborhood for over 50 years,” said García, who hails from Little Village. “I’m a father and a grandfather and my neighbors are working-class, average people. That’s how I stay rooted and why economic opportunity is so important.”

Lopez called himself an “upstart firecracker” as well as a potential bridge across party lines, which he thinks would help him get things done in Congress. Among his priorities are banning assault weapons and taking steps to reduce the national debt. Before becoming alderman, he worked as a skycap for Southwest Airlines at Midway Airport for 13 years.

“I’m not coming in as a hyper-partisan politician like Chuy García,” Lopez said. “For him, negotiating in the middle is still to the left of center within his own conference, let alone whatever other people want to talk about.”

While Lopez slams him as little more than a partisan, García is trying to run not only on his political positions but on the federal funds he’s brought back to his district and Illinois, including billions of dollars for infrastructure improvements, for energy and environmental projects and for small businesses through the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan and the Paycheck Protection Program.

Lopez counters that while he’s a more conservative member of the increasingly progressive City Council, he has voted for ordinances to end the city’s subminimum wage for tipped workers, supported increasing the city’s minimum wage and endorsed mandating all businesses to grant paid sick leave to employees. He promotes those positions on his campaign website.

Still, Lopez has cast “no” votes tied to the minimum wage and paid sick leave. He didn’t vote in favor of former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s management ordinance that established the increased minimum wage in 2019 and he also voted against last year’s amendment to the Paid Leave and Paid Sick and Safe Leave Ordinance that doubled the city’s paid leave mandate to 10 days.

“I supported labor; I supported organizations; I supported my colleagues, stood at press conferences all advocating for this, but because of the gimmicks of the now deposed mayor, I was put between a rock and a hard place,” Lopez said about his vote against the minimum wage increase. “As a future member of Congress, there’s a reason why people like having stand-alone bills or stand-alone ordinances. The only time that you’d have to resort to bundling is to mask the bad policy decisions being made by the executive branch.”

Since joining the council, Lopez has proved a loud and harsh critic of the city’s mayors. Lopez made headlines for criticizing Lightfoot’s response to crime that arose as he opposed many of her policies early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, he received criticism from others on the City Council for a post on “X,” formerly known as Twitter, stating that Black city leadership, including Mayor Brandon Johnson, had failed to “elevate the Black community” as they commemorated Black History Month.

As Lopez has feuded with the city’s mayors, he’s been the subject of much criticism himself. Lightfoot once accused Lopez of “carrying water for” now-convicted Ald. Ed Burke, Lopez’s ward neighbor and ally.

Lopez defended some of his more controversial comments as showing his authenticity and willingness to stand up for what he believes his constituents want to see accomplished.

“What resonates and brings people to me is the fact that I am genuine in my beliefs and genuine and honest with my feelings about things,” Lopez said. “Chicagoans can handle it and they miss having someone who’s just gonna cut through all the BS.”

As García and Lopez fight it out for Congress, the two are also involved in a proxy battle as Lopez vies for reelection as the 15th Ward’s Democratic committeeman. García is supporting his opponent, Jorge Agustin, with the two appearing at several fundraising and canvassing events together.

While political insiders might view García’s backing of Lopez’s opponent as little more than a creative way to dig at Lopez, García has long backed progressive candidates on the Southwest Side and said his support for Jorge Agustin is part of that pattern as García hopes to influence the future of party leadership.

“It’s developing that next generation of leaders who are not just those who run for office, but those who help others get elected,” García said. “We’re about being inclusive and accountable, and the incumbent in the 15th Ward isn’t cut from that cloth. He hasn’t delivered, and he defends old-guard politicians, like Ed Burke.”