Rahm Emanuel Versus Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia: A Convergence of Watery Ideas

Don't read their lips, but property taxes may rise.

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

CHICAGO—Without any doubt, the winner of the first one-on-one debate between Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his challenger, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, was its oh-no-you-don’t moderator, Carol Marin. Setting aside the near-historic sight of a 66-year-old woman on television, the TV and print news veteran won the night by brooking a minimum of blah-blah, and jumping in front of various filibusters: “Let’s go back four years,’’ Emanuel began, when asked how to close the Chicago Public Schools’ billion-dollar deficit. “No, let’s not,’’ Marin said crisply.

As she isn’t on the ballot, though, in the city’s April 7 mayoral runoff, voters must choose between an insurgent who’s been cast as such a sweet guy he might have a marshmallow center, and a famously profane incumbent who has lost support over crime, school closings, and revenue-producing red-light traffic cameras.

The fact that there even is a runoff has humbled Emanuel and embarrassed the president he served as chief of staff in their own town. It has excited those Chicagoans who’d love to see the city elect its first Hispanic mayor, and secretly pleased even some who see Garcia’s run as quixotic, but aren’t what you’d call heartbroken to watch their sometimes abrasive mayor have to work for his reelection against an opponent with a fraction of the funds and name recognition.

A recent Chicago Tribune poll showed Emanuel leading his challenger, 51 to 37, but Garcia supporters are hoping that turnout by those too turned-off to come out for the original vote on Feb. 24, when few thought Garcia had a chance, will swing the runoff his way. If yard signs are any indication, Garcia will do well in the president’s old neighborhood, Hyde Park.

On Monday, when Marin asked Emanuel about his reputation as “confrontational” and Garcia about his as a “lightweight,” Garcia never acknowledged the question, and Emanuel tried to take it as a compliment: “Did I push sometimes too hard? That’s on me,” the mayor replied. The whole night went like that, with Emanuel spitting out such a torrent of words that there was some runoff, and Garcia repeating like a mantra that his administration would be honest and transparent.

Though many suspect property taxes will have to go up no matter who wins, both candidates avoided admitting any such thing: “Everything I’m doing is to avoid a property tax increase,’’ said Emanuel, whose team said later explained that such an increase would be an absolute last resort.

When Garcia was asked if that option was off the table, he responded that “there are many things that need to be on the table,’’ then took a couple of unrelated whacks at his opponent for having “provided corporate welfare to his cronies” in a time of “financial freefall.” Garcia repeatedly used the word “sophisticated,” to describe his opponent, in contrast to his own man-of-the-people history as a community activist.

With $20 billion in unfunded pension liabilities that could leave the city insolvent and a $600 million payment due next year, how will the city meet its obligations? Emanuel mentioned possible revenue from a city-run casino. “With all due respect,’’ Marin said, “casinos we’ve talked about for years.” Garcia said he’d open the books, see what monies were flowing where, and start from there.

But Garcia would have to locate even more money than Emanuel, since he’s said that “on Day One” he’d dismantle the dreaded red-light cameras.

Other iffy statements included Emmanuel’s assertion that he’s added 1,000 police officers, when in fact the force is smaller than when he took office four years ago.

And when asked how he’d close the Chicago Public Schools’ deficit, Emanuel responded with the non-sequitur that he’s improved graduation rates.

Garcia said less that could be fact-checked at all, because he spoke mainly in generalities. In fact, despite Emanuel’s attempts to paint him as wildly overpromising, the opposite seemed to be true; he promised almost nothing beyond that he’d be open and honest with Chicagoans after learning where the fiscal bodies are buried.

The humbler, kinder Rahm Emanuel on view since “Rahmbo” was forced into this runoff campaign answered a question on crime by speaking of hugging parents grieving the loss of a child to gun violence “because I don’t ever want parents to be alone in their most vulnerable moment.”

Garcia, who pointed to the 10,500 gun deaths in the city over the last four years, scoffed that, “I’ve been to more funerals as a result of gun violence than the mayor will ever attend.”

One of his best moments came when asked how he’d ever get tough with the teachers unions, whose contract is coming up again, given that they are such staunch supporters. “There isn’t any gravy to be given out when I’m elected mayor,’’ he said.

There were no “oops” moments, and no zingers for the ages, either. One of the few laughs came at the end of the debate, when Marin asked each man to state a big idea for the city in just one sentence. “Can it be a run-on sentence?” the mayor asked. (Yes, those were the jokes.) His big thought involved developing the riverfront, while Garcia’s was developing the port. “So, watery big ideas,’’ Marin said in closing.

And thin gruel from the next mayor of America’s third-largest city, where 49-year-old public school teacher Derek Ault said he’ll be voting against Emanuel as much as for Garcia, “because he has the interests of the entire city at heart, and not just a select few on the lakefront.” The mayor, in his view, “is just a bad dude.”

Fifty-six-year-old IT specialist Mary Ellen Woods, though, suggested that she appreciates that about him, and will be voting for an incumbent she doesn’t love specifically because Emanuel will do what needs to be done, even if some “unholy alliances” are involved. As for Garcia, he disappointed her on Monday, she said: “He should have been better prepared for Carol Marin.”

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