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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Chuy Garcia Wakes Up and Hits Rahm Hard in Second Debate

After a sleepy first round, the mayoral challenger came alive and challenged Rahm—a lot—during last night’s match.

 Photo: Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chuy Garcia met for their second debate last night and, my take, watching the hour-long matchup closely on television, is Chuy saved his hide.

Did someone give him a triple espresso before airtime?

Garcia’s performance during the first televised debate on March 16 with NBC5’s Carol Marin moderating was so sleepy, so lacking in detail, confidence and energy, that, with polls showing 18 percent of the city’s potential voters undecided, a repeat nonperformance would have sent enough voters Rahm’s way to ensure a victory.

Broadcast on Fox with the station’s seasoned political editor Mike Flannery moderating, the hour passed quickly; it was a much more even match this time. Chuy didn’t let Rahm consume what seemed, last time, like two-thirds of the air time. When Rahm touted his having produced four balanced budgets in four years, Chuy shot back that Rahm “balanced them on the backs of ordinary Chicagoans” with fees, fines and penalties—and red light cameras.

The Tribune’s editorial writer opined after the first debate that the last hour-long matchup didn’t merit watching past 15 minutes. This one was worth watching to the end.

Some observations:

If the mayor of America’s third largest city deserves some respect, Chuy was having none of that. Not only did he outright laugh at the Mayor’s answers, and drop in the phrase “C’mon Rahm,” he accused him of “lying.” When Rahm credited himself with closing a coal plant in Little Village, Chuy pounced, arguing that people in Little Village, Pilsen, Canaryville, and Bridgeport had worked for years to close that plant—years before Rahm moved back to the city from D.C. Rahm took credit for a park in Little Village and Chuy shot back that all Rahm did was cut a ribbon. “He’s grandstanding.”

When Flannery questioned Chuy on his flip-flop position on the Obama library (something I also asked him recently), Chuy countered that he did no such thing and admonished Flannery, “Let me represent my own positions.” While Rahm defended bringing the Lucas Museum to the lakefront, claiming that it will bring “thousands of jobs,” Chuy called it a “monument to Darth Vader.”

Rahm seemed tired, and so did his material. His recitation of full-day kindergarten, universal pre-K, expanded school day, expanded school year, free community college for high school graduates with a B average, were delivered in a staccato monotone and lessened the impact of some real achievements. The line “They [students] don’t get a do-over” is old and needs refreshing. Chuy was able to make the point that an extended day and year don’t necessarily mean more education. “You failed to fund the district; you cut back on libraries.”

As usual, Garcia talked much more about spending money—on additional cops on the streets, on reopening the neighborhood mental health centers that Rahm closed—than on where that money is going to come from, although he did mention expanding the sales tax on luxury items, such as boats and fur storage. Chuy also reverted to his usual talk of audits—of CPS of CPD, and of opening the books and letting Chicagoans see how money is spent. He couched it in terms of his being a collaborative person who will invite neighborhood people into the process, listen to them, and use his vast network of neighborhood contacts to engage people and turn the neighborhoods into the vibrant life blood of the city—funneling the energy that flows from the city’s neighborhoods to charge the downtown—kind of a reverse trickle down.

Somehow, last night, Rahm’s talk of the jobs and the companies that he’s brought downtown, and the resulting new families that will find homes in the neighborhoods, didn’t resonate; perhaps because those people aren’t moving to neighborhoods like Little Village, where Chuy lives, or to the ailing south and west side neighborhoods where overnight shootings crowd the headlines.

There was much talk about the dangerous finances of CPS, the bond downgrades (Chuy’s mentions), and the looming teachers contract and possibility of a strike. Flannery asked if parents should be “lining up babysitters.” Rahm, not surprisingly, said no, he’ll work things out and again pointed to the full-day kindergarten, longer school day and year, etc. Chuy called out Rahm’s latest appointed school board member, Deborah Quazzo, and suggested that her companies are profiting from school-related contracts. (CPS officials have strongly denied this claim.) Chuy blasted Rahm for “failed leadership,” a board “riddled with conflicts of interests.” and suggested, again, auditing CPS finances and going to Springfield for help.

When Flannery pointed out that Gov. Rauner has promised to cut funding everywhere, Rahm responded that Rauner had promised specifically to increase school funding. “The Governor said he’ll increase funding and I told him we’ll keep him to his word.” (To my mind, when Rahm said this, came the vision of Rauner and Rahm talking school finances over that infamous $600 bottle of wine.)

Chuy claimed that he wouldn’t kowtow to his biggest supporter, the teacher’s union, and that he’ll be able to negotiate a good contract because he doesn’t have “animosity” and because he’s “collaborative,” not “confrontational.”

At this point Rahm complained “All he’s done is attack me” and mentioned the fact that the real problem for CPS is pensions. He noted that Chicagoans pay pensions for CPS teachers and also for teachers in Naperville and Kenilworth and Peoria and districts throughout the state. “This dual taxation has to end,” he said persuasively, noting that it had existed for 40 years.

Rahm warned that if Chuy wins and keeps all the spending pledges he has made, “companies will flee because the red ink will bleed again.” Chuy countered that Rahm keeps talking about all these jobs, but “Chicago has had one of the slowest recoveries” and that jobs are going to the central business district, not the neighborhoods. “That why people voted for change on February 24.”

And then, at the end of the hour, questions submitted via social media were put to the candidates, and they were so perfectly tailored to Chuy’s strengths that they read as if they’d been selected by his campaign manager.

The first one came from “Evelyn,” and it was such a softball to Chuy that I wondered if the Evelyn who submitted it was Chuy’s wife. Evelyn disliked red light cameras, and finds herself paying attention to them so much that she ignores other factors that could compromise her safety. She noted that the cameras “suck money from citizens.” Chuy piggybacked on that comment, agreeing that they “pick peoples’ pockets.”

The second question came from “Diego,” who wrote that he was thinking of moving out of the city to the northwest suburbs and asked the candidates to “convince me why I should stay.” Chuy used Diego’s remark to raise the subject of violence in the neighborhoods, lousy schools in many neighborhoods, and to promise, without explaining how, that when he’s mayor that will change; that he will “embrace” the neighborhoods and “mobilize better places for everyone.”

The third questioner wondered why the south side has so much more than its share of potholes.

Rahm really didn’t catch a break.

This was far from a knock out punch for either man, but Chuy stood up to Rahm and then some. And when Mike Flannery ended by noting that early voting is underway and urged Chicagoans to vote, my guess is that more will vote for Garcia than would have before tonight.

And at the debate’s end, when Chuy reached out to shake Rahm’s hand and place his other hand over that, Rahm recoiled, briefly touching Chuy’s back but popping out of his seat before Chuy could return the favor. The body language screamed that Rahm recognized that he had let Chuy get away with not-quite-murder, but almost.

The next and final debate before voters go to the polls on April 7 is on March 31 on WTTW-Ch. 11’s “Chicago Tonight.”

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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