STREETERVILLE — The five mayoral contenders held the first of five debates Tuesday, clashing for the most part respectfully in front of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board at Tribune Tower.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel faced off with four challengers: Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd); Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia (D-Chicago); business executive Willie Wilson; and perennial candidate William "Dock" Walls.
Emanuel touted his record with four years of balanced budgets without raising property, sales or gas taxes, saying, "The status quo was no longer working" when he took office four years ago.
Walls, though, said Emanuel's policies "have not been good for Chicago," later telling Emanuel directly, "You have failed miserably."
Garcia said he'd focus on safety and economic development in the neighborhoods, which "have been left behind."
"I want to move the city in a different direction," Garcia said.
Fioretti insisted he was the candidate with the experience and the track record to create a truly progressive administration.
"Chicago is moving in the wrong direction," he said.
Wilson, meanwhile, said, "I am not a politician," and that a new approach is what the city needs. The millionaire entrepreneur said he would not take a paycheck as mayor.
All candidates shook hands, and the tone was largely respectful. Things got slightly more testy when candidates were allowed to question each other.
Emanuel questioned Fioretti on his initial support for the original parking-meter deal, saying, "I want to know what you were thinking at the time."
Fioretti said Mayor Richard M. Daley's administration "misrepresented" the deal, then squandered the upfront money in two years, but he also hit Emanuel on not releasing documents on his attempt to reform the initial deal.
Emanuel challenged Fioretti on backing Tax Increment Finance district money spent on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and also challenged Garcia on voting to raise taxes in the '80s, but Garcia said that was a reform budget under Mayor Harold Washington and made no apology for it.
Garcia hit Emanuel on how he made $16 million as an investment banker in two years, saying, "I'm curious what you did to be so successful."
Emanuel made no apologies, saying he was "making sure my family was financially secure" before returning to public service in Congress.
Fioretti, Garcia and Walls said they would halt charter schools, while Emanuel said he wouldn't, and Wilson waffled.
"We need to put our resources back in our neighborhood schools," Fioretti said.
Garcia called charters "an initiative run amok" and said they were "draining resources from the neighborhood schools."
Only Emanuel stood by an appointed, not an elected, school board.
Wilson and Walls clashed over police deployment. Wilson said he wanted to get cops out of cars and back pounding a beat.
"You have no clue," Walls charged, saying police cars were essential to cover the entire city. He also criticized "heavy-handed" police tactics.
Fioretti said he'd find a way to hire 500 additional police officers.
Garcia said he'd convene a "public safety summit" on ways to improve neighborhoods and that he'd hire 1,000 new officers.
"We can't afford not to do it," he said, adding he had had success addressing the gang problem in Little Village.
Emanuel said he had already redeployed police officers from desk duty back onto the streets. He touted expanded summer jobs programs and the Becoming a Man program.
Emanuel and Walls stood by the Lucas Museum on the lakefront, while Garcia and Fioretti objected to its location near McCormick Place.
"It doesn't need to go there," Fioretti said. "It shouldn't go there."
Garcia and Fioretti also objected to devoting park land to President Barack Obama's proposed library. "Yes in Chicago, no on park space," Garcia said.
"The administration has bungled the whole thing," Fioretti charged, adding that he preferred a Pullman location.
Asked to sum up at the end, Walls called his opponents "a bunch of 1-percenters."
"I know how government works," Garcia said, adding that he'd form a "collaborative" administration devoted to neighborhoods.
"We have changed the culture," Emanuel said, from a "failed status quo" four years ago.
"I would be myself," Wilson said, not a politician, but a capable business person and administrator.
"We need a different direction," Fioretti repeated.
Walls complained from time to time that he wasn't getting equal time, but otherwise the debate was light on rancor and personal attacks.
The debate was streamed on the Tribune website.
The candidates are slated to meet again in front of the Sun-Times editorial board Friday, then in three televised debates in February before the election Feb. 24. If no candidate earns 50 percent of the vote, the top two will engage in a runoff April 7.
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