Mayor Rahm Emanuel and challenger Jesus "Chuy" Garcia sparred on how to tackle pensions, city finances and crime as they went head-to-head in a heated forum on Monday.
The rivals took aim at one another's record in the feisty, hourlong exchange that hit the airwaves with just three weeks to go until voters decide who should lead the city for the next four years.
Emanuel, a former congressman and White House chief of staff, criticized Garcia as short on specifics about how he would successfully lead the nation's third most populous city through a challenging financial and political landscape. He countered that his own first four years were marked by progress addressing some of the city's biggest challenges.
Garcia, meanwhile, hit the incumbent mayor as "out of touch" and argued that Emanuel has failed to follow through on promises to put the city on a better track, especially when it comes to crime. He reiterated his own pledge to bring fresh leadership, transparency and a collaborative approach to city hall — a contrast to an administration he sought to cast as too close to moneyed interests.
The big question coming out of Monday's forum is whether those arguments will help Garcia make a dent in the incumbent mayor's lead in the polls. A new survey released Saturday showed Emanuel maintaining a double-digit advantage, outpolling the Cook County commissioner 47 percent to 36.7 percent, with about 16 percent of voters still undecided. Participants in a series of unscientific online polls NBCChicago.com ran during the forum sided with Emanuel on a variety of topics as the arguments aired live on NBC 5, NBCChicago.com and Telemundo.
Monday's forum, moderated by veteran political journalist Carol Marin, marked the first of three joint televised appearances scheduled ahead of the April 7 runoff election. Here's a look at some of the main points of contention.
BUDGET AND PENSIONS:
Asked to detail and defend their own solutions for fixing the city's fiscal woes, the rivals drilled down on problems they'd identified with their opponent's plan.
Emanuel repeatedly criticized Garcia for not offering enough details, especially on pensions. He contrasted that with what he said was his own record of "giving a balanced approach of reform and revenue and being very specific about how to do it."
"I've laid out a plan, you've laid out a commission with no plan," he said.
Garcia argued that he has advanced a plan that "is bold, that is innovative, that seeks to be transparent to taxpayers." He accused the mayor of not following through on his promises to get the city's financial house in order and said "there's been a lot of abuse with subsidizing the rich" under Emanuel's watch.
"He is part of that responsibility. He said he would do it, he has failed to do it," he said.
When it comes to attacking the city's crime rate, both candidates agreed that more needs to be done. But they differed on what the next steps should be.
"It's safer than it was before, but not safe where people from all neighborhoods can enjoy it," Emanuel said.
Still, he argued that his public safety "policy of putting more police on the street and getting kids, drugs and guns off the street," has worked, pointing to reported drops in crime rates during his four years in office. He heralded his administration's move to shift more officers to the streets as a success in increasing the community police presence, despite criticism that his administration's claims on the issue were misleading.
Garcia, however, said that hasn't been enough. The city's shooting rate, he said, remains a "testament to a grim reality." He said he has "been to more funerals for young people shot as a result of gun violence than the mayor will ever attend."
“There are still shootings, too many shootings, but it is an issue we need to work on," he said. "There needs to be a robust commitment in Chicago to community policing.”
When pressed on how he would bankroll his promise to hire 1,000 new police officers, Garcia suggested reallocating overtime spending could help cover the cost. Emanuel shot down that idea, saying such shifts would impact officers' ability to appear in court and police major city events, such as the Saint Patrick's Day parade.
The two found at least one point to agree on, both saying they would not shutter any additional public schools for now.
Emanuel, who took political and public favor hits after he pushed to close dozens of under-performing schools, defended his actions as a way to make sure all children have a better educational future.
Garcia, who has recently walked back commitments to reopen some schools, said there need to be audits before deciding what to do next. He also attacked Emanuel's opposition to an elected school board, saying the mayor is "out of touch."
Garcia rejected claims that his relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union, whose endorsement provided his campaign a major boost, could interfere with his ability to make hard choices when it comes to schools and the budget.
The candidates addressed criticisms about their own reputations and styles, mainly that Emanuel is too confrontational and that Garica is too much of a lightweight when it comes to complicated policy matters.
Garcia, a former alderman who has emphasized his ties to the community throughout the campaign, said his 50 years of experience living and working in Chicago neighborhoods allows him to "understand what's needed to move the city forward." He cited working in three levels of government and being active in philanthropy.
"I understand what's needed to be a good steward for the city of Chicago. It comes from good ethics, transparency and being a good fiscal steward of the city resources," he said. "That's not what the city has experienced. Instead we've seen broken promises, we've seen bad choices, and we've seen the wrong priorities for the last four years."
The incumbent mayor, who has attempted to soften his brash political persona with an ad admitting he "can rub people the wrong way," acknowledged his own leadership shortcomings, but said his "strengths are often my weaknesses." He said his actions — even in cases when he's seen as pushing too hard — are in the city's best interests.
"I believe firmly that when I see a wrong, I right it," he said.
RED LIGHT CAMERAS:
Garcia, a vocal critic of the policy, pledged to "get rid of all those cameras" on his first day in office." He slammed the contract behind the contract as tainted and said the real motive behind the policy is to drive revenue.
Emanuel highlighted reforms he said he's made to the controversial camera program after inheriting a "corrupt system," pointing to removals of some cameras and countdown clocks added to others. Still, he said safety data supports the stated goal of eliminating dangerous crashes and argued that it's important that the city's police are free to "fight drugs and gangs, not writing traffic tickets."
He said he's told his own detail to stop running red lights as part of his motorcade — a practice observed as recently as Election Day — and reiterated that he pays the bill when they do.
As for Garcia's last moving violation?
"Last year, a red light camera," he said with a laugh.
BIG IDEAS FOR THE CITY'S FUTURE:
When asked in a closing question to offer a bold vision for Chicago, each candidate looked to the water, outlining plans to bolster the city's port and riverfront land: