STREETERVILLE — The mayor and his runoff challenger went at it Monday in the first of three head-to-head debates before the April 7 election.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia (D-Chicago) met at NBC Tower for an hourlong "forum" televised live on WMAQ Channel 5 and Telemundo WSNS Channel 44.
They clashed first over a $550 million pension payment due at the end of the year. Emanuel said he would welcome a hike in the state sales tax and a Chicago-run casino to balance the books. He ruled out a hike in local property taxes.
Emanuel cited a 1997 vote by Garcia in the state Senate to withhold a Chicago Public Schools pension payment, suggesting Garcia had helped "kick the can down the road" to create the pension crisis.
Garcia countered that the city had to first "open up the books" to determine "the real finances of the city of Chicago." He accused the mayor of providing corporate welfare to rich cronies.
"Chuy, you laid out a commission, not a plan," Emanuel said, attacking a financial plan laid out last week by Garcia.
"I'll represent myself, Mr. Mayor," Garcia replied, and he went on to act the aggressor in most of the rest of the debate.
When Emanuel spoke in defense of immigration reform, Garcia turned the tables on him, pointing to the contrary advice he gave President Barack Obama while White House chief of staff not to spend political capital on the issue.
Garcia hit the mayor hard on crime and the Police Department. "Crime is a serious problem in Chicago," Garcia said. He called for a robust commitment to community policing and stood by his call for 1,000 more police officers. He said he had attended more funerals of young people killed in street violence than the mayor had.
Emanuel countered that he had put more officers on the street, by transferring them from desk duty, and that community policing was extended "throughout the department."
"You're the only one who believes that in Chicago," Garcia said.
Garcia said he could be relied on to negotiate a new contract with the Chicago Teachers Union, even though it has been a prime contributor to his campaign.
"I have been a consistent reformer all of my political years," Garcia said. He said he would be "collaborative and engaging" in negotiations with teachers. "What we've lacked is transparency and accountability," Garcia said.
Garcia said he would "absolutely not" close any more schools. Emanuel agreed, citing a five-year moratorium on school closings.
Yet Garcia hit Emanuel on his reluctance to allow an elected school board, even though a referendum in most city wards showed overwhelming support for an elected board.
"The mayor's out of touch — clearly," Garcia said.
Garcia fell back on a consistent theme of "investing in Chicago neighborhoods."
Twice, the mayor said neighborhood strength was based on four key areas: transportation, education, parks and libraries.
Asked for big ideas, Garcia proposed strengthening the port of Chicago to grow trade.
Emanuel said he'd continue to improve the Chicago River as "the next waterfront."
Garcia and three other challengers forced the mayor into a two-person runoff Feb. 24, as Emanuel failed to gain a majority of votes, finishing at 45.6 percent, with Garcia running second at 33.6 percent, ahead of also-rans Willie Wilson at 10.7 percent, Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) at 7.4 and William "Dock" Walls at 2.8.
Emanuel and Garcia have also agreed to debate March 31 on WTTW Channel 11's "Chicago Tonight" and on WFLD Channel 32 on a date yet to be scheduled.
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