Emanuel Assailed by Candidates Who Say His Chicago Favors the Rich

Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, speaks during an Aspen Institute event in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013.

Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Four challengers to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel portrayed the former White House chief of staff as disconnected from the needs of neighborhoods as he focuses on tending the interests of the downtown corporate elite.

In the first debate before the Feb. 24 nonpartisan election, the candidates sparred Tuesday over crime, high unemployment in minority neighborhoods and economic development policy that Emanuel’s opponents said favors downtown.

“There really is a contrast between the central business district and the neighborhoods,” said Jesus Garcia, 58, a Cook County commissioner, in a forum at the Chicago Tribune. “Over the past four years in particular, the contrast has sharpened. The neighborhoods have been left behind.”

The nation’s third-most-populous city is approaching a financial precipice, and credit-rating companies have said unfunded pension obligations threaten its solvency. The mayor’s race has become a referendum on Emanuel’s efforts to right Chicago’s fiscal ship.

Alderman Bob Fioretti, 61, said the election is about the city’s direction.

“If you’re happy the way things are going in the city, then welcome to the 1 percent,” Fioretti said.

Emanuel, who served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, defended his four years in office, during which he dealt with deficits inherited from former Democratic Mayor Richard M. Daley, who had held office for 22 years.

“This is not the time to go back to a failed set of status-quo politics and policies that brought Chicago to the brink,” Emanuel, 55, said after touting his four balanced budgets that didn’t raise property taxes. A November survey showed him expected to win about three times the vote of any challenger, though not a majority.

Obama’s Nod

To counter claims that he has spurred inequality, Emanuel highlighted the enactment of full-day kindergarten and a higher minimum wage. He cited his work to alleviate food deserts in South Side neighborhoods, and free community college, a program that Obama commended during his State of the Union address.

While Emanuel gained Obama’s endorsement, polls show he is unpopular in the black community, stemming from persistent crime and his 2013 decision to close 50 underused public schools, mostly in minority neighborhoods.

Chicago’s signature challenge is financial stress. Moody’s Investors Service in March cut its $7.8 billion of general obligations to three steps above junk, the lowest among the 90 most populous U.S. cities, besides Detroit.

The primary strain is pension liabilities. Retirement plans had a $19.2 billion shortfall at the end of 2013, and the city must rely on state lawmakers to enact legislation to change the pensions.

Also in the race are Willie Wilson and William Walls, both far behind in published polls.

If the winner in next month’s election gets a majority, he will take office in May. If no candidate reaches that threshold, the two top vote-getters will face each other in an April run-off.

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