By Fiona Ortiz
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Billing himself as a champion of the poor, a Hispanic candidate with a catchy nickname could force well-funded Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a run-off election in the financially troubled city.
Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, a county commissioner and former state senator, is tapping into perceptions that Emanuel has an authoritarian style and has governed for the rich. Emanuel has amassed a re-election fund of more than $10 million from big-name contributers such as Hollywood director Steven Spielberg.
Garcia has raised just one-tenth of that amount and has yet to launch a major TV and radio campaign. But his gathering momentum has injected tension into the Feb. 24 race and highlighted the chasm between the haves and have-nots in a city where blacks and Hispanics make up about two-thirds of the population.
Emanuel, former chief of staff to U.S. President Barack Obama, swept into the mayor's office four years ago in the first round of balloting with more than 50 percent of the vote.
But his approval ratings are down, especially among minority voters disenchanted with persistent high crime in poor areas.
"People in Chicago's neighborhoods feel Emanuel is not a mayor they can relate to, (and that) this is not a leader who really listens to people," Garcia, 58, told Reuters.
A January poll for the Emanuel campaign shows the incumbent getting 50 percent of votes, with 22 percent for Garcia, well ahead of three other candidates. If no one wins more than 50 percent, the top two will compete in a second-round vote on April 7.
"Chuy is the most likely to be the frontrunner and the No. 2, if they can keep Emanuel below the 50 percent. Once that happens, Emanuel no longer looks invincible, and the election is up for grabs," said Dick Simpson, professor of political science at University of Illinois at Chicago and former Chicago alderman.
TEACHERS, POLICE, WAGES
Garcia has won backing from the powerful teachers union and raised $1 million since joining the race in late October with pledges to put 1,000 more police officers on the streets and hold elections for the city's school board.
"A lot of people don't like Rahm Emanuel and they are looking for someone else. Emanuel doesn't represent communities; he represents corporate America, and we're sick and tired of that," said Veronica Aguirre, a 51-year-old claims analyst and Garcia supporter who came out to a recent campaign stop.
Emanuel is running television ads touting his track record on job growth, attracting business and raising the minimum wage to $13 an hour over the next few years.
"Mayor Emanuel has spent his entire first term working closely with neighborhood residents, organized labor, and elected and religious leaders," said Steve Mayberry, communications director for Emanuel's re-election campaign.
Garcia was born in the northern Mexico state of Durango and moved to the U.S. with his parents when he was 10.
With limited funds, he has held off on hitting the airwaves. Instead, he is running a quirky campaign playing on folksy qualities such as his nickname Chuy, the common Mexican moniker for men named Jesus, and his bushy mustache, which has inspired Twitter hashtags such as #StandWithTheStache.
Garcia gets big applause on campaign stops when he attacks Emanuel's 2013 decision to close 50 Chicago schools because of budget restrictions and falling population.
He says he will put an elected school board in place instead of appointing one, cut back on standardized tests and put a moratorium on charter schools to stem the drain of talented students from public schools.
Garcia told Reuters he knows being mayor of Chicago will require spending sacrifices but pledged he would listen to residents before making controversial cuts.
His trademark mustache, however, is strictly off limits.
"No one can trim my mustache. I do my own," Garcia said about a recent run-in with a barber who aimed an electric trimmer at his upper lip.
"How dare you take such a risk at this time?" he admonished the barber. "I would lose my identity."
(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Gunna Dickson)