By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and challenger Cook County Commissioner Chuy Garcia squared off this evening in the first of three debates before the April 7 runoff election.
The debate, co-sponsored by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and Harris School of Public Policy, was shown on NBC 5 and moderated by the network’s political reporter Carol Marin.
Marin kicked off the debate, which focused heavily on the city’s finances, by asking the candidates how they would pay the city’s $550 million pension liability due later this year.
Rahm Emanuel said a mix of TIF surplus funds, a broader sales tax base and a publicly-owned casino fully-dedicated to paying for pensions would pay for it. The former site of Michael Reese Hospital has been floated as a possible site for a Chicago-run casino.
Garcia meanwhile called for transparency on where the city’s revenue is going and warned that Illinois’ 2013 pension reform law negotiated by state Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-13) will likely be found unconstitutional.
“We really need to wait on the [Illinois] Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the actions taken thus far,” he said. “I think it’s unconstitutional, I think the court will find as such and then we’ll be back to square one.”
But Emanuel deflected responsibility for the fiscal situation to Springfield, pointing instead to votes by legislators like Garcia, a state senator between 1993 and 1999.
“I don’t believe in waiting for the Supreme Court,” said Emanuel, who added that property taxes will not be raised to pay the pension debt.
Garcia said “there are many things that need to be on the table,” but did not explicitly address whether he would favor a property tax hike.
Red light cameras were also a brief topic of discussion on the heels of the mayor’s recent announcement that he would eliminate 50 of them — including one in Hyde Park.
Emanuel defended the red light cameras as helping police focus on serious crimes instead of writing traffic tickets. But Garcia, who has vowed to eliminate them, framed them as an unfair levy on low-income Chicagoans.
“The cameras are founded on a lie. The cameras are there to produce revenue,” said Garcia, who added that a former Emanuel congressional aide went on to work for Xerox shortly before it secured a contract for them.
Emanuel and Garcia both defended their stance on an elected school board — which the mayor opposes and his challenger supports.
Garcia called Emanuel “out of touch,” while the mayor avoided commenting on last month’s referendum showing overwhelming support among Chicagoans for an elected school board.
“It’s about energizing our local school councils — which is the largest democratic body in the country — making sure parents for those seats, and also having accountability,” Emanuel said.
But Garcia, a fierce critic of Emanuel’s 2013 school closings, did not commit to reopening any of those schools.
“We have a difficult financial situation, I haven’t made that commitment,” Garcia said.
Emanuel meanwhile said the city would stick to its five-year moratorium — and touted the closings as a mixed blessing.
“While this was a hardship — and Barbara [Byrd Bennett] and I acknowledge it — 93 percent of children are going to better schools,” Emanuel said, in a recent U. of C. study examining the effect the mayor’s 50 closings had.
The debate repeatedly pointed to inequities throughout the city in safety and access to resources, with both candidates being asked by audience members — including one U. of C. student — about immigration, the digital divide, segregation and Latino representation in City Hall.
Emanuel repeatedly pointed to his four-year record as a sign of progress while Garcia cast the mayor as cozy with the rich and favoring development and policies that benefit the city’s downtown and wealthy residents.
“A part of what’s required to be able to create jobs in Chicago neighborhoods, is making those neighborhoods safer, and improving schools in those neighborhoods,” Garcia said in response to an audience question highlighting unemployment in the Black and Latino communities. “That lays a foundation that allows us to also attract companies into areas of the city that haven’t seen any economic development.”
Emanuel, who said “there’s no doubt there’s validity” to Garcia’s representation of Chicago as two cities — one rich, one poor — added, however, “I think it’s a false choice to just to pit one part of the city of Chicago against another. No great city does not have a thriving, growing central business district that supports jobs where people from all parts of the city go to.”