NORTH PARK — The two candidates for the city's top office tussled Tuesday in their last scheduled debate before the April 7 runoff, with the mayor making it a point to be more combative, but then offering a suprising olive branch to his opponent.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia (D-Chicago) appeared on WTTW-TV Channel 11's "Chicago Tonight."
"Chicago Tonight" host Phil Ponce raised hackles when he asked Garcia about his son who had been convicted of misdemeanors and was an alleged gang member. Garcia said he's now a chef. "He turned his life around," Garcia said. "I'm proud of him."
"I actually don't think this is a fair line of questioning," Emanuel said.
When Ponce persisted with the topic, members of the audience groaned and booed.
Otherwise, Emanuel seemed determined to be more assertive after their last debate a week ago. Things grew spirited early when Emanuel pulled out a copy of a state filing he said showed that the community group Enlace Chicago was $650,000 in debt when Garcia left its leadership several years ago.
Garcia said it was a trough in finances during the Great Recession and the organization remains on firm financial footing, and he blamed Emanuel's involvement in the Freddie Mac mortgage fund for the recession.
"Single-handedly, I ushered in the recession," an incredulous Emanuel said. "Only you and my mother think that."
Emanuel said Garcia's campaign promises combined with his position that he'll put a commission to work on the city's finances after he's elected made him a "Hanukkah Harry" who can't deliver on those promises.
Garcia countered that there was a "veil of secrecy" around the city budget, while Emanuel insisted department audits were accurate.
Asked about pay-to-play politics with his $20 million campaign war chest, Emanuel said he had reformed city hiring. He said he ended a contract at O'Hare International Airport, and the person kicked out was now backing Garcia.
Garcia pooh-poohed that, saying that person had made no major contribution to his campaign, and countered that Forbes magazine said Emanuel had raised $7 million from 600 city vendors. He pointed to Emanuel's campaign war chest raised, he said, from 100 donors, "and they're all rich and powerful."
Ted Cox breaks down the final mayoral debate:
Emanuel opened by saying he'd avoid a hike in property taxes while dealing with the ongoing pension crisis through a progressive sales tax including services, a Chicago-owned casino and reform in Tax Increment Finance funds. He dismissed Garcia's proposal for a progressive state income tax by pointing out it would require a change in the state constitution and and a three-fifths majority in the General Assembly.
Garcia lashed back that the Emanuel administration had borrowed $1.9 billion and called for a city luxury tax to raise revenue. He said Emanuel's criticism of an Enlace deficit was "peanuts" compared to that and the $432 million estimated deficit the city faces next year.
Garcia said the Emanuel-appointed Board of Education engaged in an "accounting gimmick" to balance its last budget, and he accused Emanuel of previously seeking a hike in the property tax through the General Assembly, halted by then-Gov. Pat Quinn. Garcia said Emanuel "didn't have the guts" to pursue a property-tax increase through the City Council.
On O'Hare International Airport noise, Emanuel said he had met with local aldermen and was looking to the Federal Aviation Administration to address the issue.
Garcia said a leader would meet with residents directly, as he had. "They have some ideas that ought to be heard," he said. "Give them a half-hour. Come on."
Garcia said afterward he felt he hadn't received equal time, "but that's how it goes."
Emanuel said he thought he debates had helped voters "clarify" their positions on the issues and called on the city to unify after Tuesday's runoff. Yet he also hit Garcia one last time for flip-flopping on a Chicago casino and the Obama Presidential Library, first saying he was against them and now saying he's for them.
Protesters on the topics of airport noise and reparations for police torture victims gathered beforehand outside the WTTW studios in the normally quiet residential neighborhood, along with sign-waving supporters of both candidates.
In their first head-to-head debate, two weeks ago, Emanuel tagged Garcia early, pointing to how he had helped bring on the pension crisis with a 1997 vote for a pension "holiday" in the state Senate. Garcia fought back aggressively after that.
In their second televised debate, last week, Garcia held the initiative throughout, at one point telling the mayor, "You are not the king of the city" in handing out city property by "fiat" for projects like the proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.
Emanuel led the Feb. 24 election returns, but did not gain a majority, placing him in a runoff with Garcia, the runner-up.
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