Race tightens between Emanuel and Garcia

All five mayoral candidates attended a forum at the Instituto Cervantes of Chicago last Friday.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he clock is ticking for candidates hoping to be voted onto Chicago’s City Council next Tuesday. And in a bid to win over Hispanic voters, all five mayoral candidates attended a forum at the Instituto Cervantes of Chicago last Friday.

“Chicago, the most American of American cities, is where immigrants from all over the world come to give their children a start,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The incumbent mayor was the first up and used his opening remarks to draw parallels between his immigrant grandparents and parents and Chicago’s Hispanic immigrants in a bid to become a more attractive candidate for the Latino vote. It was a political move echoed by Ald. Bob Fioretti, who was quick to point out his parents were Italian and Polish immigrants in the Pullman neighborhood during his opening remarks.

However, these two immigrant narratives were undercut once Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia took the stage.

“I’m an immigrant and so are my parents,” said Garcia, who was born in Durango, Mexico, before moving to Chicago in the 1960s.

Moderated by Univision Chicago’s Enrique Rodríguez, the forum was an invitation-only event for members of the media, the Illinois Latino Agenda and nonprofit executives associated with the Latino Policy Forum’s Acuerdos and Leadership Academy. It’s also the first mayoral forum in Chicago history to be simulcast in English and Spanish thanks to CAN TV and Univision.

All five candidates had 18 minutes to discuss their platforms before answering submitted questions. Each answer was to be only one minute long and after the question portion of the forum, the candidates could make closing remarks.

Related story: Mayoral candidates answer Illinois Latino Agenda questionnaire

The forum was the latest in the past few weeks where Emanuel spoke at length about his administration’s expansion of pre-kindergarten services and his “successes” in increasing the city’s tourism and lowering the city’s crime. However, many of those comments have huge caveats attached to them and ignore the controversy surrounding his closure of 50 Chicago Public Schools in 2013, the fact that shootings were on the rise even though crime was down in 2014, and that many Chicagoans see the mayor as focusing too much on improving the Loop and lakefront areas to the detriment of the rest of the city. Most important of all, the mayor failed to address how he would fix the city’s looming pension crisis.

During the question and answer session, Emanuel became frustrated with Rodríguez for cutting him off after he used his minute to answer how his administration would address crime and mental health if re-elected by rehashing his administration’s record over the past four years.

“I need more than a minute for a question like that,” said the mayor.

Rodríguez pointed out the mayor was given the same amount of time as the other candidates and suggested he focus on what he intends to do differently over the next four years instead of recapping what he’s done in the past.

“My kids are a little more generous on time,” joked Emanuel.

After Emanuel’s closing remarks, he left the building through the back door to avoid reporters lingering in the hall. It wasn’t surprising since the mayor hasn’t taken questions from reporters since Feb. 5, or released his daily campaign itinerary to the press either. However, he’s spent about $1 million in television ads during the final week of the campaign to avoid a runoff with Garcia, who’s the most likely to face him in an April runoff election, according to a Chicago Tribune poll published Tuesday.

To contrast, Garcia has only been able to afford running one television ad two days after the start of early voting aimed at painting Emanuel as pinching pennies instead of fighting crime and offering corporate tax breaks at the expense of the city’s taxpayers.

During his time on stage last Friday, Garcia hammered the mayor on the city’s crime statistics.

“Safety has not been a priority for this administration. While the mayor keeps talking, kids keep shooting,” he said. Garcia thinks creating more jobs for students after school and during summer would help keep kids from street violence and added that hiring additional police using funds from the city’s budget would be a priority.

On the contrary, Emanuel has defended overtime pay as a flexible alternative to hiring additional police. During budget hearings last year, officials said one full-time officer would cost the city about $100,000 a year in pay and benefits during a time the city is trying to reduce its deficit during the current pension crisis.

Moreover, Garcia also focused his remarks on the mayor’s aversion to an elected school board for CPS, saying the current appointed board has too many conflicts of interests with its contractors.

Regarding the city’s immigrants, Garcia said they should have the city looking out for their employment so they’re not taken advantage of. He said that he’d like to see a city ID for all of Chicago residents that the immigrant, homeless and LGBTQ communities could use to get city services regardless of their immigration status.

Ald. Fioretti, outspoken leader of the city’s progressive caucus, has similar complaints against the mayor but, unlike Garcia, he has been unable to garner donations and other support from unions and progressive allies he’s worked to support in his tenure as alderman. For instance, he was an outspoken defender of the Chicago Teacher’s Union during their 2012 strike and 2013 school closings. But last fall, CTU President Karen Lewis, who was poised to run against Emanuel before being diagnosed with cancer, instead endorsed Commissioner Garcia, a former alderman and state senator, because he looked better positioned to unseat the mayor.

During his time on stage, activist William “Dock” Walls painted a vivid, populist picture of two Chicagos, contrasting its gilded downtown area to its low-income and crime-plagued neighborhoods on the west and south sides of the city.

“Chicago is still the most segregated city in America,” said Walls. While he painted an evocative portrait of institutionalized inequality, Walls failed to give solid answers on how he would fix the city’s problems.

The only clear initiatives he presented were using the city’s “capital improvement funds” to offer $1-million loans to small businesses outside of the loop area, and pushing for open enrollment in CPS to allow families to be more flexible about where their children attend school.

The final candidate who spoke last week was Dr. Willie Wilson, a self-funded businessman and son of a Louisiana sharecropper. Wilson worked his way up from janitor to being the owner of Oak Gloves, a multi-million-dollar glove distributor. At one point, he also owned five McDonald’s franchises and hosts the Emmy-winning gospel TV show SINGSATION on WGN-TV.

Over the course of this mayoral race, he has spent over $2.1 million of his own money financing his bid for mayor and was the only challenger Emanuel filed a ballot objection against (which the mayor subsequently withdrew). In an era of politicians who are very self-aware of their public image, Wilson is an odd duck. Often talking from the cuff, he declared with no hesitation last Friday that he only has a grade school education (he has various “honorary doctorates” from various religious organizations). However, he said his experience as a successful businessman and personal rags-to-riches story should more than qualify him to be a successful mayor.

“Education doesn’t mean a thing if you have to cross through gang territory to get to school,” said Wilson, regarding the mayor’s boasts of improving the city’s educational offerings.

Echoing Gov. Bruce Rauner, who he endorsed in last year’s governor’s race, Wilson said he would donate his pay check as mayor to charity if elected and won’t use “political answers” to win over voters. Also echoing Rauner, Wilson said that as a financially independent political outsider, he would not have to answer to any special interests if elected.

He also pledged his support for a Chicago casino, wants to hire more police and would like to have a set of police officers that report directly to him to keep an eye on the police department. He’d also like to establish a community watchdog group “reflecting the city’s demographics” to grade the CPD.

“I’m not political. I’m the only businessperson running. I balance my budgets,” he said.

His lack of political experience led to a gaffe when speaking at a City Club of Chicago luncheon earlier this month. During the Feb. 5 event he called white people in the audience “whiteys” while also saying he wasn’t prejudiced and wanted to help Chicagoans regardless of their race. The comment, caught on video, led his campaign to issue repeated denials he used the racially charged word.

He closed his remarks last Friday, as he’s often done through his campaign, with a prayer.

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