CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel aggressively dissected his re-election challenger’s record and platform on Monday in the first head-to-head televised debate before next month’s runoff election, but Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia came back at the former White House chief of staff with questions about the city’s financial problems and violence.
The tone was snappy with the former White House chief of staff trying to highlight what Emanuel says is Garcia’s lack of experience, especially in managing the finances of the nation’s third most populous city.
Emanuel said Garcia’s plans — including calling for 1,000 more police officers — aren’t realistic because of the strain on the budget. Several times he criticized Garcia’s plan to call for a full review of city spending before committing to new taxes or budget cuts.
“The difference between being a legislator, and I was one, in that period of time, you pass a bill. When you’re mayor you have to pay the bills,” said Emanuel, a former Congressman.
But Garcia said Emanuel hasn’t done enough to address crime. While crime overall has dropped, there was spike in homicides during part of Emanuel’s first term. Garcia accused Emanuel of focusing on benefiting companies and campaign donors.
“The mayor is out of touch,” said Garcia, a former alderman and legislator better known by his nickname “Chuy.” The debate was hosted by Chicago’s WMAQ-TV, Telemundo and the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics and Harris School of Public Policy
Emanuel has been intensely campaigning for a second term. Despite a massive fundraising advantage and an endorsement from President Barack Obama, Emanuel was unable to capture an outright majority in last month’s election with five candidates on the ballot, leading to the April 7 runoff with Garcia.
The mayor, who has a hard-charging reputation, has tried to soften his image. In a commercial he said he should listen more and admitted the day after the February election that he’d lost about six pounds while campaigning. During the debate, Emanuel didn’t counter a charge from Garcia — who’s enjoyed support from unions and minority voters — that Emanuel had once worked against immigration reform.
Emanuel has worked hard to appeal to voters in minority neighborhoods, particularly around the schools issue. Tense contract negotiations in 2012 led to the city’s first teachers’ strike in 25 years and the following year he pushed to close nearly 50 neighborhood schools. The vast majority of Chicago Public Schools students are black and Latino.
Garcia’s campaign — built on his contacts from years as a community organizer and local politician — has backing from the Chicago Teachers Union and top African American leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Minorities — in particular black voters — make up most of Chicago’s population and will be crucial to the outcome.
Garcia has also pushed for an elected school board. Chicago voters supported the idea with a nonbinding referendum last month.
He has said that Emanuel’s focus on downtown, luring businesses and special funds, has left the city’s neighborhoods behind.
“There isn’t any gravy to be given out when I’m elected mayor,” Garcia said. “I’m going to be collaborative and engaging.”
Still, Emanuel appears to have an advantage for the runoff. A poll published last week in the Chicago Tribune showed Emanuel with the support of 51 percent of registered voters to Garcia’s 37 percent. The margin of error was 3.7 percent.
In recent weeks, Emanuel has criticized Garcia’s perceived lack of business acumen, saying such expertise is needed at a critical time.
“There’s a real difference,” Emanuel said of Garcia’s call for experts to study the city’s financial problems. “Chuy, you laid out a commission, not a plan.”
Chicago’s fiscal problems include pension payments that could balloon next year by half a billion dollars annually and upcoming contract negotiations with teachers. Emanuel has received backing from establishment Democrats and business leaders who have praised his financial acumen, including attracting new businesses and budget tightening to attempt to close a roughly $300 million operating deficit.
Neither side would detail how Chicago should generate revenue. Emanuel said he wants to restructure sales taxes and avoid a property tax hike. Garcia wouldn’t rule out any taxes.
The candidates are scheduled to participate in two more televised debates ahead of the election.