RIVER NORTH — The five mayoral candidates tangled again on Friday, setting the stage for televised debates starting next week.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel faced challengers Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia (D-Chicago), entrepreneur Willie Wilson and perennial candidate William "Dock" Walls in front of the Sun-Times editorial board in a debate streamed live online. Earlier in the week, they kicked off the first of five scheduled debates at the Tribune.
Emanuel was quickly put on the defensive by questions on pensions, school closings and an income divide that had produced "two Chicagos," as Walls charged, and his challengers seemed determined to be more assertive, although the overall tone was still respectful with no personal attacks.
All rose to a late question on the future of the city. Garcia called for "redeveloping the neighborhoods," saying, "It's good the Downtown area is doing well. That prosperity has to be carried to the neighborhoods."
"Our best hope rests in small businesses," Walls said. "We cannot exist as a service economy, because that's like eating your own flesh."
"Chicago's diversity is its strength," Emanuel argued, pointing to how he'd worked to bring in more technology firms.
Fioretti called for a "living wage" to generate growth from the bottom up.
Wilson said the city should work better to "brand ourselves."
Fioretti said the election was about "choice" and selecting a "new direction," especially in addressing street violence. "If you think everything's going good here, then welcome to the 1 percent," Fioretti said.
Emanuel based future growth on improving education. He said he had made "the tough decisions" to change "a failed status quo."
Walls charged that Emanuel's policies had created "two Chicagos" and insisted equal opportunity was the answer.
"Chicago is at a crossroads," Garcia said. "It is clear that the neighborhoods have been left behind."
Emanuel, though, rose to a challenge that he hadn't lobbied hard enough to back state gun control laws in the General Assembly, citing his record of passing gun control in Congress.
Wilson and Walls both called for economic development in neighborhoods as the best way to create opportunity and undercut street violence. Garcia echoed that, calling for "safer, healthier communities with good schools."
Garcia got the debate off to a humorous start, when he misspoke by saying he'd been married to the "same women" for 38 years. Otherwise, he was more forceful than in the earlier debate, saying he'd use Tax Increment Finance funds to address a pension shortfall expected to be paid next year.
"TIF funds are no panacea," Garcia said, adding that they needed more transparency and oversight since they've "been a private slush fund for the mayor."
Pensions were the initial topic, with Emanuel saying he had built trust with unions and expected moderate concessions from them.
"They have to be a part of the solution," Emanuel said.
Emanuel cited how he had passed four balanced budgets without raising property, gas or sales taxes. He rejected a citywide income tax and said that he expected to continue that track record, although he did not rule out an increase in property taxes next year.
Emanuel has hiked other costs in the city, including water rates, and the School Board he appointed has raised property taxes. His challengers seized on those increased expenses to city residents.
"He balanced the budget on fines, fees and assessments ... to benefit the 1 percent" of top wage earners, Walls said. "I see an increase in property taxes," he added.
Fioretti said that "a pension is a guarantee."
While ruling out a hike in property taxes, he said, "We have to put everything on the table," including a tax on suburban commuters coming into the city to work and on financial deals at the Chicago Board Options Exchange.
Fioretti said Emanuel opposed a commuter tax "because his roots are in the suburbs."
He challenged the mayor to pledge not to raise property taxes next year.
Wilson again emphasized, "I'm not a politician," and insisted he was out to represent the best interests of the people separate from politics.
Emanuel defended the 49 Chicago Public Schools closings in 2013 and insisted the education system had benefited.
"My politics are second, a backseat, to giving children a better opportunity," the mayor said.
But Wilson ripped the decision.
"Nobody in their right mind would close 50 schools," he said, saying that African-American students on the South and West sides, where the closings were concentrated, had been "disenfranchised."
Wilson gave both Emanuel and CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett failing grades.
"I would get rid of the mayor and get rid of her," he added.
Added Walls: "If you close all the schools, nobody is going to want to move into the neighborhood."
Walls gave Byrd-Bennett an F-minus and said he'd place a moratorium on charter schools.
Garcia gave Byrd-Bennett a D-minus, "recognizing that she takes orders from the mayor."
He called for more community involvement on any closings, and said that they had been done by mayoral "fiat" and there was "a lack of engagement."
Fioretti said Byrd-Bennett's grade was "in the D range" and repeated his call for an elected School Board. He cited how the board had received recommendations to close fewer schools, but had ignored them. "The whole thing was a charade," he added.
Emanuel defended Byrd-Bennett by giving her an A, adding, "I'm proud that I appointed her."
Their next debate is at 7 p.m. Wednesday on the WTTW-TV Channel 11 program "Chicago Tonight."
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