RIVER NORTH — The mayor's top challenger pounded on the theme of a Chicago divided between "the very rich and the very poor" Monday in a luncheon address to the City Club.
Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia (D-Chicago) opened with what he called a "hard truth," saying, "Chicago is becoming a city of the very rich and the very poor, with fewer and fewer people in between."
Garcia said the middle class was being squeezed out, as those polar economic demographics accounted for more than 60 percent of the city's residents, with 22 percent under the poverty level.
He extended that to say the city also has "two school systems," and he labeled money diverted to charter schools as "just the newest form of privatization," adding, "Public school money should be spent on public schools."
Garcia said it was not about criticizing private schools. "I believe in private schools. I went to one," he said, having graduated from St. Rita High School. But he said good public schools were key to keeping young families in the city and not "voting with their feet" by fleeing to the suburbs.
Garcia said Chicago Public Schools offered "good schools for the fortunate, substandard schools for the less fortunate. And what happens to those in the middle? They leave."
He called for smaller class sizes and fewer standardized tests, with more emphasis placed on critical thinking.
Garcia said the first step in getting the city out of its economic hole is to "stop digging."
He said he was out to "reform our entire tax structure," pressing the state to lower property taxes by adopting a progressive income tax.
"I believe in fair taxation. I believe in progressive taxation," Garcia said, adding, "To me, that is plain common sense and it's fairness."
Yet Garcia offered few immediate concrete plans to reform city finances, except to institute Tax Increment Financing reform and a luxury tax. He pointed to studies showing that most TIF funding is spent Downtown and not in the neighborhoods. He called that "Robin Hood in reverse."
He promised fair treatment to all citizens in all neighborhoods as a way to make the city more equitable and to spur population growth, which he said would lead to it also being more economically vital.
Garcia cited a Brookings Institute study placing Chicago among the top 10 most inequitable U.S. cities, saying, "That's the record of this mayor, and it's not a record to tout."
He said Mayor Rahm Emanuel relied on an "accelerated" form of "trickle-down economics," calling it "the hallmark of his administration." He attacked the fee increases instituted under Emanuel, especially the "citywide red-light-camera speed trap."
"We can change Chicago," Garcia said, "make it work for all the people."
Garcia has a final televised debate with Emanuel scheduled for Tuesday on WTTW-TV Channel 11's "Chicago Tonight." The two head for a final showdown in the citywide runoff April 7.
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