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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Garcia Says He Won’t Have Budget Details Before Election Day

In an exclusive interview, the mayoral candidate maps out how he’s going to beat Rahm Emanuel on April 7.

Garcia criticized the Emanuel administration for what he says is a lack of budget transparency: “You have to FOIA everything, and it’s one of the most secretive set of books anywhere in any city.”  Photo: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune

The last time I talked to Chuy Garcia, before the first-round election on February 24, we sat in his tiny office in a shuttered Greek restaurant on West Washington Street. Showing its restaurant roots, the office also held a cooling box mechanism and, in the candidate’s words, a “noisy pop contraption.”

Wednesday morning we moved up 40 stories, meeting in an elegant conference room with a spectacular view at the Loop law firm of Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick, Dym, Ltd. A buddy of his is a partner there, Chuy explained, “and he lets us hang out here.”

An edited transcript of our conversation follows:

There’s a poll out now showing the race at 51-36; Rahm owns the 51. 

The polls have been off for the most part from the start. Going into the February election, [the Tribune] poll had me in the 20s. Rahm has been running a whole bunch of TV ads for the last two weeks with some very negative stuff. We just went up with ours, they will run through election day, on radio and Spanish-language TV.

How did you feel after Monday’s debate? Was there something you want to do different during the next debate (on March 26)?

I felt good. We talked lots about the city’s financing challenges. We talked about education. We talked about crime. I hope we talk about economic development as we move into the next set of debates. Housing would be another area. The only question that came up had to do with Chicago’s history of segregation.

Huffington Post is out with a story claiming that Rahm’s CHA “has been has been pulling hundreds of millions of dollars from a fund earmarked for its affordable housing program and using the money instead to boost its pension, purchase government debt and build up a staggering cash reserve.”

I just saw that. I’ve been very concerned about the CHA sitting on like $430 million in resources for housing choice vouchers and other resources that they could have used to build housing to allow people to find apartments, especially family housing, two or more bedroom units. It’s really a travesty that they’ve sat on all this money when there’s such a great need. I think there’s a [wait] list of like 280,000 people seeking to get into the program, and they’re just sitting on these resources.

Is it kosher for them to do that?

I don’t think so. I expected the question to come up in previous debates, and it hasn’t yet. I’m hoping it’ll come up in the next debate.

Or you could introduce it yourself.

Yeah, I probably will.

Did you watch the video of your debate performance? Rahm said something to the effect that he wants a city where people can sit on their front porches. I wondered as I watched why you didn’t counter that.

In the next debate, I will make sure that there’s equal time. If the mayor is going to interrupt when I’m speaking, I will have to do something. I’m hoping the moderators will make sure it’s a little more level playing field.

Rahm talked a lot more than you did.

He talked a lot more. He didn’t say more, but he sure repeated his usual talking points.

But in those talking points, Rahm did offer plenty of detail. Plenty of people are saying, “We want detail.” There’s no detail in your approach. You are pretty much following the Bruce Rauner model, saying you have to first look at the books. Will you be offering detail in the run-up to election day on April 7?

No.

What I say is that we’re in a financial free fall in Chicago. You know our bonds are nearly at junk status. The mayor has received a failing evaluation of his stewardship of the city’s finances.

We can’t trust the numbers that are being provided by his administration. There’s never been an audit of any department in the city, ever, certainly not in his administration. If we’re going to have credibility and standing when we go to Springfield with our hat in hand, asking for additional dollars, we have to be able to show where we are and we don’t have that right now. We don’t have credibility and we don’t have standing.

[Emanuel supporters counter that many audits of city finances have been completed. At City Hall the day after this interview, according to a Tribune report, “proxies put on a political stunt, …wheeling out two dollies with stacks of binders they said contained a variety of audits of city finances over the past year."]

Rahm and his supporters say: “What’s Chuy talking about? The books are public. He can have his people look at them.”

It’s just not true. You have to FOIA everything, and it’s one of the most secretive set of books anywhere in any city. Chicago is really antiquated. Talk about the politics of the past. The information that we want should be online. You cannot find it online. That’s the transparency that I will bring to citizens in Chicago.

I hear and read a lot of people saying that you are being evasive or that you have people on your team who aren’t smart enough to read the books.

That’s just plain false. What we’re saying is we gotta have a baseline that is rooted in independent audits and that’s rooted in fact. We don’t have that credibility right now. Legislators in Springfield are gonna want real numbers, and we’re gonna provide those to them.

What we put forth is a new bold approach to how we manage the finances of Chicago and its agencies. Why? Because those are the agencies that take a bite out of people’s property taxes. People should know why there isn’t talk about the half of billion dollars that could be had in savings from efficiencies, from shared services; ideas that we’re bringing forth.

This is transparency. This is accountability. This is showing taxpayers that before we ask them to shoulder any new revenue impositions in the form of taxes, whatever the gamut of revenue measures may be, we’re going to show you that we’ve done everything possible to save money.

On the issue of raising property taxes: Rahm reportedly used to say that immigration reform is the third rail of American politics. Are property taxes the third rail of Chicago politics?

Property taxes should be the last resort.

But raising them is on the table for you, right?

Look, I’m not ready to commit to any property tax increases because we don’t have a basis for getting there. Until we exhaust everything else, until we’re transparent, until we have a whole set of revenue measures that are put forth by independent, civic leaders, by experts in the field, you can’t just jump to the conclusion that you’re going to raise peoples’ property taxes. The mayor tried that last year. He made his proposal. The governor [Pat Quinn] prevented him from making that a reality. The chair of his city budget committee, Carrie Austin [a Rahm ally and alderman of the 34th ward], stated candidly that that’s his plan once he’s reelected. 

I wonder if she got a phone call from the mayor.

Oh, she got more than a phone call.

Do you know?

I don’t know, but I know that he must have blew his lid

Given that you are Toni Preckwinkle’s floor leader, will she endorse you?

I don’t know. It would be great if she did, but I don’t know what she’s going to do.

Have you talked to her about it?

I spoke with her before the primary.

When you gave your victory speech on February 24, that was the first time I saw your wife, and I thought she came across so well on camera. If you’re elected mayor, would she be out there in a public role? You told me before she has MS, but she looked good.

Evelyn has always been involved in the community. She retired from CPS because of a disability. She was a teacher’s aide and worked with autistic children. She feels passionately about children. She will be an active first lady. Her condition may limit some of that, but she has a lot of energy and lots of passion, and it’s contagious. She’s definitely not going to sit at home waiting for things to happen or for me to get home.

You held a press conference last Friday with Scott Waguespack to explain your financial plans for the city, and it was roundly panned, especially by the Chicago Tribune. What went wrong?

Everything went as planned. Scott Waguespack [32nd ward alderman] was there because he brings expertise and experience to the table as it relates to the city’s financial management. Scott is a former city manager for for Berwyn, Illinois. He understands how municipalities function. And he understands many of the roadblocks that this administration has created to prevent aldermen and to prevent citizens from getting information about our budget specifically. He has been a critic of the tax increment financing, lack of transparency, lack of accountability. He participated in the city budget hearings, someone who can attest to how difficult it is to get information and why the city needs to open up its books, engage in audits.

As for the Tribune, on February 1, reporters detailed a clear pattern of pay-to-play politics in this administration. They showed how the wealthy and powerful have influence with the mayor, how they contribute to his campaign, and then in turn how they wind up with contracts, with appointments, with zoning changes, with many other benefits directly. Sixty percent of the top donors have received some sort of a benefit. 

If you end up losing on April 7, will the Chicago Forward SuperPAC be one of the reasons why?

I have no intention of losing. Before February 24, most of the pundits, most political observers, thought there would not be a runoff. Why? Because all the odds seemed to favor Rahm Emanuel. And nobody saw the 19 runoffs in Chicago’s wards coming. To me that’s a strong statement that voters have made for change, with respect to the mayor and with respect to the City Council.

I know that we will win and I think field [operations] will make the difference and people will hear my message over the next three weeks. Chicago Forward is just an extension of the interests of the wealthy and powerful in Chicago. They hijacked our government four years ago and they think they’re entitled to hang on to it. They’ll spend as much money as they need to spend to try to keep their privilege and their domination of Chicago.

What do you say to the claim that Chicago Forward is separate from Rahm?

Nonsense. Look at the contributors. Same interests; the wealthy and the powerful.

Mike Fourcher of Aldertrack reported that the Chicago Teachers Union has “purchased $43,155 of Black radio airtime for this week [for you], while the Emanuel campaign also purchased $53,430 of Black radio airtime for this week.” How do you overcome that discrepancy?

On February 24, we overcame a 12 to 1 ratio of expenditures. We’ll overcome this one. And our fundraising is going well. We’ve already raised in excess of a million dollars. More commitments coming.

Any from out of town?

First, we’ve got some out-of-town endorsements—Howard Dean and some members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. And some contributions from folks in Los Angeles. I have a lot of friends there who are raising money for me, and two friends in Denver who are raising money for me. They’re not Hollywood types, just folks who live and work in L.A. and have been community activists.

On election night last month, Ald. Bob Fioretti pledged to vote for anybody but Rahm, but has not yet endorsed you and was quite critical of you as a flip flopper in an interview he gave to the New York Times. Will he come around?

I am hoping that he’ll come on board, like Willie Wilson did.

You did change your mind on the Obama library. 

My position on the Obama library is that it should come to Chicago. I’m unequivocal. I have a relationship that goes back to the Illinois Senate with President Obama. We both served on the board of the Woods Fund.

Do you know Obama on a personal level?

Yes, yes, he knows who Chuy is. I expressed concerns about building the library on park lands on the South Side, but if it means bringing it to Chicago and it has to be on park land, then so be it.

You’re a UIC grad, so would you prefer that UIC gets the library?

Either one. The West Side of course could use a shot in the arm, but if it comes to the South Side, no problem.

You got a good reception at the South Side Irish Parade last Sunday.

I got a great reception. I was truly moved. People were shouting my name on both sides of the street. “Hey, Chuy, go get ‘em!”

These were mostly white people?

Yeah, yeah. They know that I’m a neighborhood guy; they know I graduated from St. Rita. They’ve seen me in the debates. They’ve received my literature. They’ve seen my ads. And they’re connecting. I felt it was like the parade down 26th street where I live, like the Mexican Independence Day parade.

What about the rift between African Americans and Latinos? Does that get in the way of your building what you’ve called the “Harold Washington coalition?”

Part of Rahm’s strategy is to pit the two communities against each other and to exploit any tensions that are there. I think that’s unconscionable. I think the city needs to be united, not divided or played off against each other.

The coalition that we have put together is a multiracial coalition. I received support from African Americans that will grow as people see there are only two choices on the ballot. I think that my numbers will go up. I have worked with some of the most beloved African American leaders in Chicago, like Harold Washington and Toni Preckwinkle. Emil Jones, Barack’s godfather, has endorsed me. He helped to launch Barack and was very instrumental in his run for the U.S. Senate. I served with Emil Jones in the Illinois senate. I was very supportive of Emil Jones to become the minority leader.

Do you expect to see Obama return to Chicago to re-endorse Rahm?

I have no clue.

Do you have people you’re looking at who would be part of the top layer of your administration?

Right now we’re looking at building a transition team. We want to hit the ground running. We want policy direction and prioritizing of first steps to take the government in a new direction that is governed with ethics and transparency.

Who’s on your transition team?

Nothing definite yet.

You’re not going to give me any names?

No.

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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