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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Garcia Adviser: ‘Our Polls Show There’s No Way Rahm Can Win’

David Schaffer, the guy who plays Rahm in debate prep, lays out Chuy’s debate strategy—and wonders about that Fioretti endorsement.

Rahm and Chuy are all smiles before their second debate last week. Their final debate will be Tuesday night.  Photo: Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune

Only one week remains in this year’s mayoral race—and one debate as well. After a sleepy first debate and a fiery second one, Rahm Emanuel and Chuy Garcia will face off for a final time on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight” on Tuesday night.

With polls showing Rahm holding a double digit lead, it’s hard to see how Garcia pulls off a win. But David Schaffer, Garcia’s finance chairman, is not concerned. The 53-year-old Chicago native is the guy playing Rahm in the crucial debate prep, which he’s been doing since the primaries. 

Schaffer, a “director/shareholder” at the law firm Kubasiak, Fylstra, Thorpe & Rotunno, P.C., grew up in West Rogers Park. He attended parochial school and Quigley Seminary North for high school before the University of Chicago for college (1983) and Harvard for law school (1987). On Saturday afternoon, I found Schaffer, now a resident of Sandburg Village, attending a hockey game for one of his three young children.

An edited transcript of our telephone conversation follows:

How did you get to know Chuy Garcia?

I worked for Harold [Washington] in 1983 with Chuy. The late Andrew Patner, my friend and classmate in college, brought me in.

Where do the debate sessions take place?

At the law offices of Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick, Dym, Ltd. Matt Piers [Deputy Corporation Counsel starting in the Washington administration] is an old friend of Chuy’s and campaign counsel

Have you ever played your candidate’s opponent in debate prep before?

I worked for Carol Moseley Braun in 2011. [She was one of several candidates who lost to Rahm in the February 2011 primary.] She didn’t have to be prepped for debates. I accompanied her to the [post-debate spin room], went with her when she was interviewed by the Tribune editorial board. I did play that role when I worked for the election [to president of the Cook County Board] of John Stroger. At one point, he sent me out to debate Aurelia Pucinski because he was so far ahead and so tired of doing debates.

Who’s in the room at debate prep?

The moderator is [veteran political strategist and Jane Byrne’s 1979 campaign manager] Don Rose. Marty Castro [Obama-appointed chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights] assists. A group of campaign workers comprise the audience.

Who plays Chuy in Rahm’s debate prep?

I have no idea; frankly I couldn’t care less. They’re all ciphers.

Is David Axelrod advising Rahm on how to win this race?

I know David Axelrod real well. David is Rahm’s best friend. I would be shocked if he wasn’t involved day to day in virtually every decision.      

But Axelrod doesn’t have an official position in the campaign.

If you’re David Axelrod, you don’t need an official position.

Are his fingerprints on the campaign?

He advocates for Rahm in the press all the time. Look at the latest Reader article. [In arguing that Rahm should be elected, Axelrod tells Mick Dumke that this race “is not a congeniality contest. It’s a decision about who can handle what’s coming down the pike, and how to keep both the neighborhoods and downtown strong. Cities are dynamic and they’re fragile, and mayors do make a difference.”]

What were you thinking after that first debate when I and many others thought Chuy performed so badly?

I thought he won the first debate. You’ve got three debates. The strategy was to establish Chuy as a mayoral candidate, so undecided voters really for the first time had a chance to see him go one-on-one with Emanuel. He went in and demonstrated there was a real choice and that there was no sense whatsoever that he would back off from any challenge from Emanuel.

To me it seemed that Rahm dominated and certainly talked much more than Chuy, who just seemed to sit there.

Rahm spent most of the time speaking, and Rahm was defending wrong decisions—red light cameras, for example. I would be happy to hear him talk about red light cameras for an hour. This election is a referendum on Rahm Emanuel, which he’s going to lose.

I assume you attended the debate. Were you trying to make eye contact with Chuy and tell him to step up his game?

I was there but the answer to your question is no. Evelyn [Chuy’s wife] and I walked in together. I saw Rahm and [top campaign aide] David Spielfogel, and I said, “Hello Mr. Mayor. Hello, David.” Rahm said hello to me but didn’t greet Mrs. Garcia. In fairness, he may not have known who she was.

The night reminded me of the debacle of Barack Obama’s first debate with Romney. You had to be worried.

Quite the contrary. I was delighted with the way the debate unfolded. I kept smiling. After the debate Chuy was ebullient, no regrets.

What did you think when you read the Tribune editorial that argued that Chuy was so ineffective and outclassed that only the first 15 minutes of the debate were worth watching?

The same thing I think of most of the shilling that the paper does for Rahm.

Did you have a different strategy for the second debate?

The events are different, different moderators, different formats, different approaches. In the first debate, the goal was to establish that you were even with Emanuel. At this point, Chuy’s clearly wining. Now he can take more risks and go after him more. The second debate was a knockout.

Did you find it jarring and rude when Chuy outright laughed at Rahm as he answered questions?

No, it was just a natural reaction. I was laughing too.

What’s your strategy for the third debate?

More of the same. Chuy continues to provide the truth, and I think voters will continue to move to him. My sense is that the digital community is generally supporting Chuy; looking at Twitter or Facebook, there’s a base of young, tech-savvy supporters.

I’m hearing that Rahm is working on his ground game.

I don’t think that’s true. I hear Rahm’s pulling people off the street; he doesn’t want to pay them.

Really? That’s not what I hear, and besides he has so much more money than Chuy, ubiquitous advertisements, and polls that show him comfortably ahead.

Our polls show there’s no way that Rahm can win; that Chuy will win pretty handily. The same thing they showed in the primary, that Chuy was going to force Rahm into a runoff.

Who’s doing your polling?

I’m not authorized to give you that. My understanding is that the polling firm would prefer not to be publicly identified, and the campaign has agreed to that request. I can state that it is a well-known, long-established firm with an extensive record of electoral polling.

Late Saturday night, Bob Fioretti, who had promised on election night to vote for anyone but Rahm, and who has been the harshest of Rahm critics on the City Council, endorsed Rahm. What do you make of that?

I suspect there was some kind of deal [to help pay off Fioretti’s campaign debt]. When Chuy and I went to Bob’s law office at 53 W. Jackson to talk with him about getting his endorsement, Bob brought his campaign debt up. Bob was clearly worried about it. So I am not surprised by the rumors. [Fioretti political adviser Michael Kolenc has denied that there was any deal made for the endorsement.]

It is certainly an about-face for Bob. I’m not sure the endorsement means much because I don’t think Bob has much credibility left, and an endorsement at this late date will not do too much good. Still, it is too bad to see this happen. The real question is, “What will Da Coach think of it?” [Mike Ditka, who votes in Florida, endorsed Fioretti in the primary.]

Will Chuy ask Ditka for an endorsement?

Oh, if we could get it, that would be great! Two guys with famous mustaches!

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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