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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Did Phil Ponce Win Some Votes for Garcia by Bringing Up His Son?

In a heated debate, one moment that stood out was moderator Phil Ponce asking Jesus Garcia whether his son was still in a gang.

Rahm Emanuel and Jesus "Chuy" Garcia face off in the final debate.  Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s Tuesday started off with a Chicago Tribune poll showing Rahm Emanuel opening “a huge lead” in the mayoral race—58 to 30, twice the margin of a poll taken three weeks ago, with only 9 percent undecided, down from 18 percent in earlier polls.

The beleaguered candidate couldn’t have been looking forward to the third and final debate last night at the studios of WTTW. Chuy had done surprisingly well in the second debate last week, and no way was Rahm going to let him get away with another win.

Added to that, Rahm’s bottomless war chest has inflicted on us all an endless stream of radio and TV ads portraying Chuy, a former alderman, state senator, and now a Cook County commissioner, as an inept, inexperienced, man without a plan, eager to ascend to the fifth floor of City Hall so he can take orders from high officials of the teacher’s union and the SEIU.

Unfortunately for Rahm, who looks like a man who can’t wait for this nightmare to be over already, there was no knockout punch last night. But unfortunately for Chuy, it’s hard to figure, assuming the polls are accurate, how he makes up the deficit in the six days until voters head to the polls on April 7.

Chicago Tonight’s Phil Ponce to the rescue. He tossed a hardball at Chuy that caused the studio audience to groan and boo. Ponce asked Chuy whether his son Samuel is still a member of a gang—Samuel, now 31, used to be a member of the Two-Six street gang (Darkside faction). And what about that pro bono legal work that Samuel, now a working chef, got from that fancy law firm, Mayer Brown; skilled representation that spared him prison time despite his violent attacks on off-duty cops in 2007, complete with the ugliest, most vile racial taunts and threats?

And what about the fact that in 2012, the Cook County Board approved a $100 million bond deal and gave the $89,000 bond counsel work to Mayer Brown? Rather than recuse himself, Chuy not only approved but cosponsored the measure. [Chuy told me in February, “All of that transpired before I ran for the County Board, so it never occurred to me that it was a conflict of interest. The case was in 2007; the board vote was in 2012."]

Despite the five years separating the son’s crime and the father’s vote, Chuy had the sympathy of every parent—this one included—who has ever spent sleepless nights worrying about his or her children. It was certainly the most human and relatable moment of the three debates of this tiresome, un-illuminating runoff.

Reacting to Ponce’s question, Chuy looked wounded. He gathered himself and explained that he and his wife Evelyn have stayed in their Little Village neighborhood, where gangs are a fact of life, where raising children is “challenging.” Chuy talked movingly about the love and support he and Evelyn gave their son and how maybe it wasn’t enough. But Samuel has “turned his life around,” is raising four children, and now mentors young people.

Whether sincerely or opportunistically, Rahm jumped in and admonished Ponce: “I don’t think this is a fair line of questioning. We’re both fathers.”

Chuy told me during an earlier interview that his son’s brushes with gangs and the law almost dissuaded him from running. He said he knew those troubles would be raised, and so wasn’t surprised to see his son’s past made public last February in an impressively reported story by the Chicago Sun-Times’ Dan Mihalopoulos. The story was illustrated by a scary mug shot of Samuel Garcia.

“We figured that at some point, if my candidacy jelled and if I became a threat, they would go there. [“They” meaning Rahm’s campaign people.] He would put me in a negative light to question my character, my integrity. It’s exactly what happened.”

Despite losing the goodwill of his audience, Ponce would not let go of the question. “If you can’t keep your own son out of a gang, how can you steer the city away from guns and violence?” When Chuy sidestepped, Ponce pounced again. Again, Chuy didn’t answer. “We did the best we could.” He added that his son has matured into a man so admirable that, “Phil, I’d like to introduce him to you.”

You only needed to follow along on Twitter to see how negatively people were reacting to Ponce’s line of questioning.

The remainder of the debate was mostly about the city’s horrible financial situation; whose fault it is and what can be done to fix it. Rahm heaped praise on himself for balancing four budgets in four years, ending “gimmicks,” investing in children, and not “kicking the can down the road.” And that, Rahm charged, is precisely what Chuy did back when he cast a reprehensible vote in the state senate. According to Rahm, the pension mess we face today can be traced back to a politician most Chicagoans had never heard of—that would be Jesus Chuy Garcia—voting yes to allow a holiday from funding pensions.

Chuy then hit Rahm for serving on the board of directors of Freddie Mac in 2000 and 2001. Chuy characterized Rahm’s lucrative Freddie Mac service as “a rubber stamp,” but overstepped when linking Freddie and Fannie to the misery of the Great Recession and Rahm to playing a part in starting it. Rahm got the audience in his corner by reminding Chuy that he served on Freddie in 2001 and the Great Recession started seven years later. “I did not cause the recession,” Rahm said to appreciative laughter. “And I know something about recessions,” he added, reminding viewers that Barack Obama called on him to be his chief of staff in order to cure the seriously ailing economy.

And so on. These “debates” never shed much light; instead they create disagreement and disagreeableness, and the viewer really doesn’t know what to believe, so tends to believe the candidate for whom he or she is already inclined to vote. More talk, endless talk, about audits, performance audits; Chuy claiming that there aren’t any; Rahm strenuously disagreeing and accusing Chuy of disrespecting the great accounting firm of Deloitte Touche. Rahm asked Chuy if he really believes what he says about Rahm “hiding money” and, if yes, has he called the U.S. Attorney? And then Chuy grabbed his chance to bring up the great bond rating firm of Moody’s and its repeated downgrades of the city and CPS finances.

Were there any solutions offered? Chuy called for a progressive sales tax and TIF reform, and cited a commission of 12 business and union leaders that he would appoint on the day he’s elected—though he was “not at liberty” to name more than a few people who would make up that commission. Rahm, meanwhile, predicted that Chuy’s commission will so screw things up that citizens can forget about reliable tree trimming or garbage collection. (All I could think of is, “Oh, no, what if the city cuts back even further on rat control?”) Chuy lambasted Rahm for borrowing $1.9 billion to pay off short term expenses and for raising $700 million by hitting low income and working people with “fees and fines and penalties.” Rahm then lambasted Chuy for running his Enlace Chicago into a deficit, and how can he run a city of if he can’t even run a small nonprofit. And then on to noise from O’Hare runways, and why Rahm can’t just meet with affected, suffering residents, and Rahm suggesting that FAA officials will jump to his tune and won’t jump to Chuy’s.

But the exchange regarding Chuy’s son stood out. Chuy’s finance director, David Schaffer, texted me post-debate that he and the Rev. Jesse Jackson “went right up to Phil afterwards, and Jackson ripped him—talking about Sammy Garcia and Ed Burke [Ponce asked both men to say whether they’d retain Burke as head of the Council’s Finance Committee] and not a single question about violence in the neighborhoods. Where are your priorities, Phil?”

Rahm’s wife, Amy, and one of his daughters attended the debate. According to Schaffer, Chuy’s wife, Evelyn, was not there. “She’s in the hospital. Her MS flared up because she has been at bingo games and church services and firehouses campaigning for her husband. Chuy missed her presence tonight.” None of Chuy’s three children attended. In Samuel’s case, I’m not surprised.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.


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