Emanuel, Garcia Spar Over Chicago Finances in First Debate

by | March 17, 2015

By Rick Pearson and Bill Ruthhart

Rahm Emanuel and Jesus "Chuy" Garcia engaged in a contentious first debate Monday night, as the mayor accused his challenger of having no plans to deal with the city's financial problems while Garcia contended Emanuel served only "the rich and powerful."

Facing a $550 million increase in police and fire pension payments, Emanuel indicated during the debate that he would take a property tax increase off the table. Later, his campaign clarified that a property tax increase is "the very last resort." Days earlier, Emanuel had refused to rule out a property tax hike and warned tax bills would "explode" if he didn't get financial relief from state lawmakers.

Now Emanuel said he would ask Springfield to broaden the sales tax to include professional services that are now exempt, things like fees for attorneys, accountants and advertising consultants. It's similar to something Emanuel talked about during his last campaign but did not pursue.

The mayor also criticized Garcia for sidestepping specifics on money issues by suggesting he would create a post-election task force to recommend proposals to raise city revenue, including taxes.

"Let me be clear here, there's a real difference," said Emanuel, who frequently defended his first-term stewardship as mayor. "Chuy, you laid out a commission not a plan."

But Garcia accused Emanuel of not making good on his promise of four years ago to rescue city finances and expressed skepticism over the mayor's agenda in Springfield. Garcia contended Emanuel was "out of touch" with the poor and working families.

"The mayor has provided corporate welfare to his cronies, millionaires and billionaires in Illinois," said Garcia, who added that he believed the administration has not been transparent in giving taxpayers a true sense of the city's financial picture.

The two candidates in the April 7 election covered an array of issues, including education, crime and neighborhood development, during the hourlong forum broadcast on NBC-Ch. 5 and Telemundo Chicago. The event was co-sponsored by the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics and Harris School of Public Policy.

The tenor of the debate was markedly different from the five forums held in advance of the Feb. 24 election, when Emanuel failed to gain the majority vote necessary to avoid the runoff.

During past debates, Emanuel sought to portray himself as above the fray against four challengers, presenting a calm demeanor aimed at moving past his rivals' critiques without resorting to attacking them.

But now that the campaign is a one-on-one contest, the debate dynamic changed. Emanuel frequently sought to portray Garcia, a Cook County commissioner, as a contributor to the city's financial problems and not up to the task of being mayor.

Noting Garcia was a former state senator, Emanuel lectured that there was a difference between being a legislator who passes bills and "when you're mayor, you have to pay the bills."

The mayor contended Garcia voted in 1997 for a sweeping education bill that Emanuel said allowed Chicago Public Schools to skip some of its annual pension payments, what Emanuel characterized as a "kick the can down the road" attitude in Springfield that hurts the city today.

But Garcia, who is backed by the Chicago Teachers Union, said he would negotiate "in a fair and equitable manner" as the Chicago Public Schools faces a $1 billion budget deficit. Garcia chided Emanuel for failing to accede to voters' wishes and support an elective, rather than appointed, school board.

Emanuel, however, said much of the city and schools' financial problems involved pensions. He said proposals such as broadening the sales tax to services and a city-owned casino, while reliant upon questionable action from Springfield, were aimed at avoiding an increase in the politically unpopular property tax.

"That's why you have to have leadership in Springfield. It's a way to avoid property taxes and it takes leadership," Emanuel said.

Garcia, however, said pension deals with some municipal workers already negotiated by Emanuel as well as efforts to change police and fire pensions would likely be found unconstitutional as a result of a case currently being weighed by the Illinois Supreme Court. That case involves whether public employee pensions are constitutionally protected.

"Reform is important but it's also important to understand the solution the mayor has put forth is before the Illinois Supreme Court," Garcia said. "I think it's unconstitutional. I think the court will find as such, and we'll be back to square one."

The sales tax issue is a back-to-the-future idea for Emanuel, who four years ago proposed broadening the city's sales tax to include some consumer services in exchange for a decrease in the city's sales tax rate. But the mayor never moved forward with such a plan.

Now, in his re-election bid, Emanuel is calling for an expansion of the state sales tax -- of which the city piggybacks its own sales tax -- to "dozens of professional services." Emanuel said it would be part of Springfield closing "state tax loopholes" to help generate new money for the city.

"Because it's come to a crisis, this is an opportunity to do things that have been put off for years," Emanuel said of the pressure that public pension costs were putting on the state and city. It was an echo of his line as President Barack Obama's chief of staff that "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

The mayor noted there had been discussions in Springfield about broadening the sales tax to some services, something proposed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner during his fall campaign. But Rauner and the legislature's Republican minority have not publicly discussed the issue and have disregarded any talk by Democrats about new taxes.

On the issue of crime, Emanuel questioned how Garcia would fund his pledge for 1,000 new Chicago police officers by using some of the $100 million now spent on police overtime.

Emanuel made a similar pledge during the last campaign, but he ended up reassigning officers to beat duties to try to make good on the number. The mayor said he was stressing an overall policy of "putting more police on the street and kids, guns and drugs off the street."

But Garcia said more than 10,000 shootings over the past four years were "a testament to the grim reality in Chicago."

"I have been to more funerals of young people shot by gun violence than the mayor will ever attend," said Garcia, who added that he saw a need for a "robust commitment in the city of Chicago to community policing."

But Emanuel defended his police strategy and police superintendent, and he said diverting overtime money to hire more police would "blow a hole" through the public safety budget.

"Everybody from Garry McCarthy to the beat officer, everybody practices community policing," Emanuel said.

"You're the only one who believes that in Chicago," Garcia responded. "That's the problem."

Garcia stuck around after the debate to take questions from the media. Emanuel left after the conclusion of the forum and headed to a post-debate party nearby where he ordered a beer, munched on popcorn and talked to supporters.

Prior to the debate, Garcia sought to build upon his weekend endorsement by the politically active Service Employees International Union State Council in trying to press his populist case for higher wages and a pledge to do battle against corporate interests.

Garcia briefly led a march of its members who waved union flags and chanted "Chuy" as they walked down LaSalle Street, inside a protective corridor established by police.

"I am delighted to join all of the janitors who have assembled here today as they begin their collective bargaining efforts to ensure that they provide the best salaries, the best working conditions, for themselves and their families and their neighborhoods," Garcia said at a pre-march rally outside BMO Harris Bank headquarters in the Loop.

Garcia contended the union janitors were among "hard-working people who are building and revitalizing Chicago neighborhoods" and that earning "decent wages" was a key to the city's success.

Emanuel earlier attended a lunch in Bronzeville with African-American labor leaders, while three officials backing his re-election -- U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, City Clerk Susana Mendoza and City Treasurer Kurt Summers -- held a morning City Hall news conference to criticize Garcia for a lack of specifics in the financial outline for the city that the challenger released last week.

Meanwhile, Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Emanuel supporter, said he was hopeful that turnout April 7 will increase beyond the 34 percent recorded last month.

"This has become a national campaign, in terms of obviously the mayor, with a national reputation, and now 'Chuy' Garcia, who is working with some unions to project his candidacy," Durbin told WGN-TV Ch. 9. "I can tell as I move around the city of Chicago, people are invested in this battle."

Emanuel and Garcia have agreed to meet for two other scheduled broadcast debates: on March 26 on Fox Ch.-32 and March 31 on WTTW-Ch. 11's "Chicago Tonight" program.

Tribune reporters Juan Perez Jr. and Cynthia Dizikes contributed.

(c)2015 the Chicago Tribune